By Michael Roberts
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Back in late October, Gary Boyce didn't seem like a man headed for a whipping.
Settling into a red leather chair in his "Denver office"--the boardroom-swank Churchill Room at the Brown Palace--Boyce was the picture of cowboy calm while discussing the two initiatives he and his water-development company, Stockman's Water, had successfully placed on the November 3 ballot. Amendments 15 and 16 would have required farmers to install flow meters on about 2,000 shallow wells in the San Luis Valley and pay for water removed from under state lands there. The amendments were the right thing for Colorado, Boyce claimed; if passed, the decades-long water grabs on the part of the valley's good ol' boy network would soon be a thing of the past, ending the abuse of the region's most precious resource.
"What you've got here is a bunch of corporate farmers who are taking advantage of the system," Boyce argued. "I'm simply saying that's not right."
Boyce's numerous foes didn't agree. The opposition to his initiatives included a lengthy list of environmental groups, agriculture organizations, virtually every newspaper in the state and a bipartisan alliance of the state's politicians. Gubernatorial candidates Gail Schoettler and Bill Owens, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Representative Scott McInnis were just a few of those who claimed Boyce's measures were an attempt to bankrupt the farmers who opposed his company's plan to remove and sell water from beneath the valley's alkali-dusted soil. Boyce, they claimed, was a black-hearted businessman in a Western-cut suit, seeking revenge on the salt-of-the-earth types who had mocked him as a youth and who now fight him in the state's water courts.
"He's mad at the potato farmers' kids because they had a few more dollars to spend than he did when he was a kid," said Lewis H. Entz, a Republican from Hooper, Colorado, and the District 60 state representative who led the fight against Boyce. "He's bitter and vindictive. So now he's gonna get even with us spud farmers come hell or high water. It's a personal deal with him," added Entz, describing Boyce as "a drugstore cowboy--he rides around on his ranch in a Humvee with a six-gun on his hip." Greg Gosar, a Monte Vista organic farmer, agreed. "He's trying to resolve some problem from when he was raised in the San Luis Valley," Gosar said. "He thinks he was discriminated against and abused. He came to one of our meetings once, and when we asked why he was doing this, he told us, 'I've never been hit that I didn't hit back.' He's still looking for a life--that's the way I see it."
Staring down the length of a smoldering cigar fresh from his personal stash in the Churchill's private humidor, Boyce blew off his attackers' characterizations. "That's the way they are down in the San Luis Valley. Those kinds of things have always worked for them down there," he said.
Boyce spent about half a million dollars paying staffers to collect enough petition signatures to get his initiatives on the ballot and another $400,000 on advertisements during the campaign. But Amendments 15 and 16 bit the dust hard, by a near three-to-one margin. Still, Boyce isn't willing to concede that his efforts might have been ill-advised.
Instead he blames uninformed voters for the tidal wave of opposition that swamped the amendments.
"These were very complicated issues," Boyce says today, "and there was just no way to educate the voters to understand them in this short of a time. And with all the hot-button issues on the ballot, our measures became a low priority for the voters."
Entz offers another explanation: "This just shows you that when people come down here and try to start trouble, we work them over."
This wasn't the first time a plan to export water from the region had met with resistance. In the early 1990s, another outfit, American Water Development Incorporated, had attempted to implement a similar plan. In response, the taxpayers in the region agreed to double their property taxes to fund their opposition to the plan, and they won. When AWDI went to court with applications for removing the water from the valley's aquifer, the courts rejected the company's proposal, in part because of intense local opposition.
Following the defeat, AWDI sold its land to Boyce, whose Baca Grande Ranch bordered AWDI's holdings. Boyce had left the region in his teens and entered the equestrian trade, working as a hand in various stables around the country. He went on to become an expert in training and dealing in high-dollar horses, and his wealthy, international clientele included a number of financial wizards who Boyce says assisted him in making lucrative investments over the past two decades. After returning to the San Luis Valley, he used those monies to purchase his current real-estate holdings and later joined forces with Farrallon Capital Management, a San Francisco-based investment company, to market and sell water rights in the area.
According to Boyce, he and his firm are the real victims. After announcing to the area's citizenry last year that he intended to pull 150,00 acre-feet of water from the San Luis Valley and sell it elsewhere, Boyce says he became the target of the area's agribusiness legions. His now-failed ballot measures, he says, were an attempt to right a string of wrongs carried out by these Entz-led foes, who he claims have gone out of their way to undermine his enterprise. But, he says, requiring farmers to monitor and pay for their use of water under state lands is not an attempt to draw blood from his attackers; rather, he calls it a step toward "making sure there's a level playing field."
To Entz, the fact that Boyce got these measures on the state ballot in the first place was a pillaging of the state's political system, proof that money can buy a button under the fingers of Colorado voters. "It's the worst abuse of the ballot-initiatives process that I've ever seen," Entz says. "It's the first time an individual company has had enough money to put issues on the ballot to destroy the economy of the San Luis Valley."
And Boyce says it won't be the last. "As far as these two initiatives go," Boyce says, "I think it's just the beginning, and I don't see how I'm going to put the genie back in the bottle. Like my old football coach used to say, there's always next year. Hell, it took Doug Bruce three runs to get the TABOR Amendments passed; something like this, it could take four. But frankly, I'm tired of this political stuff, and I'm glad the election is over. It's time to get back to business."
Which Boyce says could mean heading into the state's water court and applying for the water he's after, though he's not offering any timetables for doing so. Nor is he ruling out a return to the political arena. "If we have what I perceive to be unfair attempts to destroy my business through bills in the legislature, I would indeed be forced to defend myself," he says.
Entz, who's being forced from office this January by term limits, doesn't think this is the end of his constituents' water battles, either. "Oh, he'll find something to harass us over," he says of Boyce. "Somebody will fly over his property or we won't cross the street just right, and he'll have us back in court before long."
Boyce believes that in spite of his resounding defeat, he may have won at least a piece of his most recent battle. "I think we were very successful in that we made people aware that there's something out of kilter with the water policies in the San Luis Valley," he says. "They'll start figuring these things out, and pretty soon the chickens will come home to roost.